China's gestures of liberty scrutinized, with U.S. trade privileges at stake

May 09, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- Former Tiananmen Square protest leader Wan Dan is free -- free to see friends, to enjoy his collection of Chinese rock 'n' roll tapes, to greet foreign visitors at his apartment door with a smile across his baby-smooth face.

But Mr. Wang is not free to say what's on his mind.

"I must be very careful how I speak," he says. "I do not want to give the Chinese government any excuse to say I'm trying to overthrow it. I cannot talk about politics and economics. I'm not afraid of jail, but I would really like not to go back."

Mr. Wang, 24, was regarded as one of the most thoughtful leaders of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing. He spent more than 3 1/2 years in prison until he was paroled in February, about four months early.

His early release from jail was portrayed by the Chinese government as an act of leniency. Along with other actions, it could be viewed in the West as a sign of China's progress on human rights.

But Mr. Wang's caution about freely speaking -- a right outlined in China's constitution -- reflects in a small way how far China must go before it meets even its own professed standards of civil liberties.

Assessing China's changing and mottled human-rights picture is only one of the complexities facing President Clinton as he must decide by June 3 whether and how to renew for another year China's most-favored-nation trade standing with the United States.

Improvements in China's trade practices, its weapons sales and its treatment of Tibet are also among the long list of demands that many in Congress want linked to extending the favorable trade status.

Being a "most favored nation" allows Chinese imports to enter the United States under the same low tariffs as most other nations. It enables China to earn billions of dollars by selling its exports relatively cheaply in the United States, its largest overseas market.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Clinton slammed President Bush for renewing the favorable status without any conditions in order to maintain U.S. influence with China. Once elected, however, the new president put China on the back burner. What he will decide is not clear.

Last week, the president said that he did not want to "isolate" China and that it had made some "encouraging moves" in recent weeks. But he also has signaled an unwillingness to buck congressional attempts to pressure China by attaching conditions to the favorable trade standing, beginning next year.

And reports from Washington last week that China had been shipping missiles to Pakistan -- in violation of its arms-control pledges to the United States -- are likely to make it even harder for Mr. Clinton to avoid taking a relatively tough stance.

China rejects conditions

The stakes in the decision go far beyond maintaining the low tariffs on Chinese imports. China repeatedly has stressed that the favorable trade status is the "cornerstone" of its relationship with the United States and that it cannot accept any conditions ** on its renewal.

Conditional renewal might spark not only a Sino-U.S. trade war, but also a sharp deterioration of political relations with the world's largest nation just as it is rising as a major economic power.

As a Chinese magazine, Outlook Weekly, warned last week, "Any mishandling of the issue by the U.S. would . . . force Beijing to make a strong response."

Most likely to emerge from Washington is some sort of highly nuanced compromise between the carrot of unconditional renewal and the stick of attaching conditions.

For the president, the shape of this compromise may depend in part on the assessment of Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord, who plans to visit here early this week.

"Shunning China is not an alternative," Mr. Lord, a former U.S. ambassador to China, said in his March confirmation hearing before a Senate committee. "We need both to condemn repression and preserve links with progressive forces, which are the foundation of our longer-term ties.

"Our policy challenge therefore is to reconcile our need to deal with this important nation with our imperative to promote international values."

Over the next few weeks, Mr. Clinton will be getting plenty of advice on how to meet this challenge, as lobbyists on all sides of the trade issue go into overdrive.

Chinese purchasing missions to the United States recently have ordered more than $1 billion worth of airplanes, cars and oil equipment. These purchases are aimed at countering U.S. concerns about its rapidly growing trade deficit with China and at reminding the United States that 150,000 U.S. jobs depend on its exports to China.

Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten visited President Clinton last week to stress that 70,000 jobs in the British colony and perhaps half its annual economic growth hinged on good Sino-U.S. trade relations.

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